The Vienna Neo-Avant-Garde and the Rise of Artistic Research Practices avant la lettre
In 1962, the 32-year-old Gerhard Rühm, one of the founding members of the Vienna Group of young poets,1 published a short programmatic text about the “new theater” in an architectural journal. At the outset, he declares that the “new theater” has to be based on the most comprehensive “idea” of the “means and capabilities of theater,” and that he will develop this idea “by reviewing the elements of the theater.” He promises an “analysis and differentiation” of the different “areas of theater.”2
The first of these areas is “language,” and here Rühm distinguishes, among other facets, the “sounds” of language from its “scripts,” according to the respective human faculties of “hearing” and “reading.” He also distinguishes language
These deliberations about the role of language in theatre constitute only about a tenth of Rühm’s text. Similarly, he details various possible uses of the “voice,” the “stage,” and “light.”5 He also differentiates various appearances of “humans”—naked or dressed-up—and “puppets,”6 as well as “basic types” of “spatial conditions,” such as various sizes and functions of the theatre building.7 Last but not least Rühm discusses methodologies of “performance,” differentiating, for example, “fixed theater” from “spontaneous theater.” He also emphasises how the “size,” “social composition,” and “mood” of the audience can vary.8
All of this shows how comprehensive Rühm’s ‘idea’ of the ‘means and capabilities of theatre’ is. He presents an overview of various theatrical ‘elements’ and distinguishes between their possible uses: language can be charged with meaning or lack it, verging on sound or noise; the human body can be naked or dressed; the voice can be natural or artificial, loud or soft, etc. The awareness of this almost boundless potential then provides the ‘basic’ for what Rühm calls ‘the new theatre.’ It allows a vast range of practical experiments, bringing about an almost endless panoply of new theatrical forms. These might range from a naked person sitting on a dark giant stage in an opera house; to a person on a medium-sized stage—and let some lights go on—uttering meaningless sounds; or two people—dressed-up, why not?—singing or speaking a sentence on a small stage in a bar or cafe; to a group of actors making noise or chanting along. All of these forms and many more are conceivable even before stage design, interaction, or dialogue would come up, and, still less, action or a plot.
The historical records leave little doubt that Rühm’s programmatic text was largely in accordance with the theatrical activities of the Vienna Group. For some years—starting, in fact, before Rühm published his text—the Group
While these multifaceted new practices stirred considerable controversy in the cultural circles of the Vienna bourgeoisie, they were subsequently recognised and have since been given a canonical place in the history of Austrian literature and art.10 They are also considered as precursors for international artistic movements such as situationism, word-based art, and conceptual art.11 As I will argue below, yet another art-historical lineage becomes discernible from today’s vantage: some of the group’s works might also be understood as precursors to what is now called ‘artistic research.’
The quasi-scientific rigour in Rühm’s systematic ‘differentiation and analysis’ of theatrical and language ‘elements’ is hard to overlook, and it appears fitting that over some years, the group found itself studying ‘linguistic science’ as well as Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language.12 Such inquiries into the ‘means and possibilities’ of language—and the language arts—could be said to constitute a first step of ‘research,’ and a second step is the experimental
Ever since artistic research gained international currency, in the 1990’s, ruminations about historical precursors, or even role models, were part of the discourse. The reason for this was that the rise of ‘artistic research’ had primarily been instigated by the political decision to turn art schools into universities so that the theoretical debate on possible approaches and outcomes often preceded the establishment of practices. In this situation, the search for historical models played a considerable role in the constitution and legitimisation of the field.15 Yet, tracing historical precursors cannot only provide legitimisation, but it can also contribute to a new genealogical understanding of how artistic research was conceived. Indeed, although the political decisions were key, certain artistic practices from the second half of the 20th century also contributed to that development. Some currents of neo-avant-garde and conceptual art, in particular, had already embraced elements of academic research culture such as programmatic writing, theoretical sketches, word-based art forms, conceptual works, etc. This made it relatively easy for artists with these backgrounds to fill the new teaching/research positions that were created when art schools were transformed into universities.16
This genealogical vantage point allows contextualising the Vienna Group’s ‘research’ practices. The group obviously participated in the neo-avant-garde momentum,17 and some of their works came to resemble pieces of conceptual art. While Rühm’s “basic for the new theater” bears similarities to certain programmatic writings by conceptual artists, his ‘script pictures’ employ language in similar mechanical and ‘scientific’ ways as conceptual works from around the same time.18 However, the roles assigned to the artist/researcher in the Vienna Group and conceptual art do not entirely overlap. For Rühm and his fellows, programmatic writing was not an artistic medium per se, but rather it provided the basics for the creation of new, experimental texts, and these included not just mechanical ‘script pictures,’ but any innovative work of poetry, prose, or drama—even when remaining within the more traditional publication formats of literary journals or textbooks.
Another particularity of the Vienna Group’s ‘conceptual’ practices can be seen in the cultural and political situation in Austria. For some members of the Group, the striving for artistic innovation was not exclusively instigated by the neo-avant-garde momentum, but partly also by discontent with the status quo of German language and culture, which they perceived to be deeply corrupted by the legacy of National Socialism. Not unlike other Austrian writers of their generation such as Ingeborg Bachmann, for example, they considered the fundamental renewal of the German language and culture a foremost task of contemporary literature.19 Among others, this was one rationale for the practices of ‘research for the arts’ sketched out so far.
But how exactly was the perceived legacy of National Socialism addressed in ‘conceptual’ practices? How should such practices ‘denazify’ the German language? As an example, I will now examine a short prose piece by Konrad Bayer (1931–1964), called “karl ein karl,” which was first published in a literary magazine in 1962. While generally in line with the ‘research’ objectives presented by Rühm in the “theater” essay of the same year, Bayer’s short text will turn out to be a particularly illuminating case. It allows, on the one hand, to discern a number of rather different conceptual approaches to the development of innovative literary forms. On the other hand, “karl ein karl” allows observing more closely how one such approach aimed at exposing and overcoming remains of National Socialist language pertinent in Austrian everyday culture of the time.
“karl ein karl”: Konrad Bayer and the Research for a New German Literature after the Second World War
Refraining from any typographic or layout experiments, “karl ein karl” is rather conventionally parted into some longer and shorter paragraphs, containing slightly less than 1,000 words in total. Very unconventionally, however, every third (or so) word is the word “karl.” In fact, “karl” is the only noun ever used in the text. As a consequence, the main agent of each sentence appears to be a person named “karl.” For example: “karl stösst auf.” [which can either mean “karl burps.” or “karl bumps into.”]; “aber karl gibt nicht auf.” [“but karl doesn’t give up.”]; or “und karl stirbt.” [“and karl dies.”].20
In other sentences, however, two or more people called “karl” are involved. For example, the phrase “da stösst karl auf karl und karl verstösst karl” [“here” or “then” “karl” “meets karl” or “bumps into karl”; and “karl repudiates karl”] leaves open whether the two interactions refer to the same two persons or
While Bayer’s technique is rather simple, he follows Rühm’s objectives of ‘research for literature’ quite closely. He explores the ‘means and possibilities’ of an ‘element’ of language—namely the word “karl”—and, applying these newly understood means, he develops an innovative piece of literature. But which possibilities of the word are used and what are the particularities of the resulting literary form? Does Bayer vary and expand the meaning of “karl” to the point where the word runs the risk of being stripped of its “communicative function” and reduced to its materiality—like in a “sound poem,” or in a typical work of “concrete poetry”?21 Does he present a sceptical view according to which language fails to produce stable meanings, as one could argue in the sense of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, for example?22 Or does Bayer compose a “mechanical” or “automated” text—expanding on, for example, surrealist theories of écriture automatique—to highlight the changing roles of language in the age of information theory and computing?23
For sure, all these interpretive vantage points have their validity for certain works by the Vienna Group. “karl ein karl,” however, primarily seems to be representative for the group’s aforementioned interest in linguistic science. Provided that Bayer developed a series of changing meanings of the word “karl,” one could think, for example, of Roman Jakobson’s analysis of two fundamental principles of language. As Jakobson detailed in 1956, the meaning of a word depends both on the relations of contiguity with adjacent words (what Jakobson called the metonymic pole of language) as well as on relations of similarity with words that it can substitute (the metaphoric pole).24 Along the same lines, Bayer seems, on the one hand, to have inquired how the meaning of “karl” can vary when used in ever-new connections with various verbs and prepositions (contiguity). On the other hand, he explored the extent to which “karl” can substitute other nouns while still producing some meaning (similarity).25
The most striking feature of the resulting literary form is the modular composition out of individual sentences that appear unrelated to each other.26 However, the selection and alignment of the sentences are by no means accidental (nor ‘mechanical’). In fact, Bayer is delineating the changing meaning of “karl” in very particular relations of contiguity and similarity. Consider the verbs appearing in the sentences mentioned above—such as “burping” (or “bumping into”), “grabbing,” “giving up,” “dying”—as well as the tools or sicknesses/moods that are substituted by “karl.” While some of the substitutions remain ambiguous or even obscure, they, together with the verbs, provide a sense of action that develops as the text progresses: it appears to be a series of rather violent interactions between the various “karls” that come about mostly
Due to the particular choice of words combined with “karl,” then, Bayer’s ‘research’ method not only produces an innovative modular form of prose but also a particular ‘slapstick’ narrative. But what is the significance of this narrative? This is where the political complex sketched out above comes into play, for the word “karl,” far from being chosen randomly or merely for its particular sound, evokes an eminently political subtext. Reminiscent of Charlemagne (768–814)—the founding father of the later Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations—as well as of Charles I. of Austria (1887–1922)—who was forced to resign as emperor after the First World War—the word encapsulates the founding of the ‘first’ empire and the demise of the ‘second’. That is, it encapsulates the historical conditions of possibility for the ‘third,’ National Socialist empire, which after the defeat of the ‘Second Reich’ attempted to re-establish the empire in a new form—greater and more glorious than ever before.
Against this background, the multi-layered political intervention of Bayer’s new narrative becomes discernible. First, “karl ein karl” can be said to diagnose an enduring omnipresence of the word “karl” in the everyday language of the 1950’s and thus an enduring omnipresence of the idea of the empire. Second, in his ‘Jakobsonian’ experiments, Bayer diagnoses the multiple ways in which the word actually fails to produce its centuries-old common meaning and is subject to the general linguistic functioning of language. Accordingly, the slapstick narrative details how the subject position of “karl,” the emperor per se, appears to be desperately upheld although it is unable to produce coherent, reasonable acts that would constitute an organised group (and much less an entire state or society). Third, Bayer’s text supplements political-cultural diagnosis with an attempt at performative intervention: highlighting the various changing meanings of the word “karl” as well as the uncontrolled slapstick acts originating from the emperor’s subject position, Bayer tries to further undermine the afterlife which the idea of the empire enjoyed after 1945.
The experimental and innovative text, based on ‘Jakobsonian’ inquiries into the ‘means and capabilities’ of the word “karl,” thus arises out of a fundamental political discontent.27 In this regard, Bayer’s approach significantly differs from some of the literary forms developed by his fellow Vienna Group members, such as ‘sound poems,’ ‘concrete poetry,’ Wittgensteinian language plays, or Surrealist écriture automatique. While such forms are primarily aimed at exposing the fundamental materiality, meaninglessness, or ambiguity of language in general, Bayer exposes how, at a certain moment in history, a political keyword loses its long valid, singular meaning. This indicates that the Vienna group’s ‘research for the literary arts’ avant la lettre not only pursued various strategies but also arose from a variety of very different concerns and motivations.
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